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  • feedwordpress 02:36:10 on 2018/10/22 Permalink
    Tags: Columns, , data portability, , , , ,   

    Instead of Breaking Up The Tech Oligarchs, Let’s Try This One Simple Hack 

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    Social conversations about difficult and complex topics have arcs – they tend to start scattered, with many threads and potential paths, then resolve over time toward consensus. This consensus differs based on groups within society – Fox News aficionados will cluster one way, NPR devotees another. Regardless of the group, such consensus then becomes presumption – and once a group of people presume, they fail to explore potentially difficult or presumably impossible alternative solutions.

    This is often a good thing – an efficient way to get to an answer. But it can also mean we fail to imagine a better solution, because our own biases are obstructing a more elegant path forward.

    This is my sense of the current conversation around the impact of what Professor Scott Galloway has named “The Four” – the largest and most powerful American companies in technology (they are Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, for those just returning from a ten-year nap).  Over the past year or so, the conversation around technology has become one of “something must be done.” Tech was too powerful, it consumed too much of our data and too much of our economic growth. Europe passed GDPR, Congress held ineffectual hearings, Facebook kept screwing up, Google failed to show up…it was all of a piece.

    The conversation evolved into a debate about various remedies, and recently, it’s resolved into a pretty consistent consensus, at least amongst a certain class of tech observers: These companies need to be broken up. Antitrust, many now claim, is the best remedy for the market dominance these companies have amassed.

    It’s a seductive response, with seductive historical precedent. In the 1970s and 80s, antitrust broke up AT&T, ultimately paving the way for the Internet to flourish. In the 90s, antitrust provided the framework for the government’s case against Microsoft, opening the door for new companies like Google and Facebook to dominate the next version of the Internet. Why wouldn’t antitrust regulation usher in #Internet3? Imagine a world where YouTube, Instagram, and Amazon Web Services are all separate companies. Would not that world be better?

    Perhaps. I’m not well read enough in antitrust law to argue one way or the other, but I know that antitrust turns on the idea of consumer harm (usually measured in terms of price), and there’s a strong argument to be made that a free service like Google or Facebook can’t possibly cause consumer harm. Then again, there are many who argue that data is in fact currency, and The Four have essentially monopolized a class of that currency.

    But even as I stare at the antitrust remedy, another solution keeps poking at me, one that on its face seems quite elegant and rather unexplored.

    The idea is simply this: Require all companies who’ve reached a certain scale to build machine-readable data portability into their platforms. The right to data portability is explicit in the EU’s newly enacted GDPR framework, but so far the impact has been slight: There’s enough wiggle room in the verbiage to hamper technical implementation and scope. Plus, let’s be honest: Europe has never really been a hotbed of open innovation in the first place.

    But what if we had a similar statute here? And I don’t mean all of GDPR – that’s certainly a non starter. But that one rule, that one requirement: That every data service at scale had to stand up an API that allowed consumers to access their co-created data, download a copy of it (which I am calling a token), and make that copy available to any service they deemed worthy?

    Imagine what might come of that in the United States?

    I’m not a policy expert, and the devil’s always in the details. So let me be clear in what I mean when I say “machine-readable data portability”: The right to take, via an API, what is essentially a “token” containing all (or a portion of) the data you’ve co created in one service, and offer it, with various protections, permission, and revocability, to another service. In my Senate testimony, I gave the example of a token that has all your Amazon purchases, which you then give to Walmart so it can do a historical price comparison and tell you how much money you would save if you shopped at its online service. Walmart would have a powerful incentive to get consumers to create and share that token – the most difficult problem in nearly all of business is getting a customer to switch to a similar service. That would be quite a valuable token, I’d wager*.

    Should be simple to do, no? I mean, don’t we at least co-own the information about what we bought at Amazon?

    Well, no. Not really. Between confusing terms of service, hard to find dashboards, and confounding data reporting standards, The Four can both claim we “own our own data” while at the same time ensuring there’ll never be a true market for the information they have about us.

    So yes, my idea is easily dismissed. The initial response I’ve had to it is always some variation of: “There’s no way The Four would let this happen.” That’s exactly the kind of biases I refer to above – we assume that The Four control the dialog, that they either will thwart this idea through intensive lobbying, clever terms of service, and soft power, or that the idea is practically impossible because of technical or market limitations. To that I ask….Why?

    Why is it impossible for me to tokenize all of my Lyft ride data, and give for free it to an academic project that is mapping the impact of ride sharing on congestion in major cities? Why is it impossible for a small business owner to create an RFP for all OpenTable, Resy, and other dining data, so she can determine the best kind of restaurant to open in her neighborhood? I’m pretty certain she’d pay a few bucks a head for that kind of data – so why can’t I sell that information to her (with a vig back to OpenTable and Resy) if the value exchange is there to be monetized? Why can’t I tokenize and sell my Twitter interactions to a brand (or more likely, an agency or research company) interested in understanding the mind of a father who lives in Manhattan? Why can’t I tokenize and trade my Spotify history for better recommendations on live shows to see, or movies to watch, or books to read? Or, simply give it to a free service that’s sprung up to give me suggestions about new music to check out?

    Why can’t an ecosystem of agents, startups, and data brokers emerge, a new industry of information processing not seen since the rise of search optimization in the early aughts, leveraging and arbitraging consumer information to create entirely new kinds of businesses driven by insights currently buried in today’s data monopolies?

    Such a world would be fascinating, exciting, sometimes sketchy, and a hell of a lot of fun. It’d be driven by the individual choices of millions of consumers – choosing which agents to trust, which tokens to create, which trades felt fair. There’s be fails, there’d be fraud, there’d be bad actors. But over time, the good would win over the bad, because the decision making is distributed across the entire population of Internet users. In short, we’d push the decision making to the node – to us. Sure, we’d do stupid things. And sure, the hucksters and the hustlers would make short term killings. But I’ll take an open system like this over a closed one any day of the week, especially if the open system is governed by an architecture empowering the individual to make their own decisions.

    It’s be a lot like the Internet was once imagined to be.

    I’ve been noodling on such an ecosystem, and I’m convinced it could dwarf our current Internet in terms of overall value created (and credit where credit is due, The Four have created a lot of value). It’d run laps around The Four when it comes to innovation – tens of thousands of new companies would form, all of them feeding off the newly liberated oxygen of high quality, structured, machine readable data. Trusted independent platforms for value exchange would arise. Independent third party agents would munge tokens from competing services, verifying claims and earning the trust of consumers (will Walmart really save you a thousand bucks a year?! We can prove it, or not!). Huge platforms would develop for the processing, securitization, permissioning, and validation of our data. Man, it’d feel like…well, like the recumbent, boring old Internet was finally exciting again.

    There’s no technical reason why this world doesn’t exist. The progenitors of the Web have already imagined it, heck, Tim Berners Lee recently announced he’s working pretty much full time on creating a system devoted to the foundational elements needed for it to blossom.

    But until we as a society write machine-readable data portability into law, such efforts will be relegated to interesting side shows. And more likely than not, we’ll spend the next few years arguing about breaking up The Four, and let’s be honest, that’s an argument The Four want us to have, because they’re going to win it (more money, better lawyers, etc. etc.). Instead, we should  just require them – and all other data services of scale – to free the data they’ve so far managed to imprison. One simple new law could change all of that. Shouldn’t we consider it?

    *In another post, I’ll explore this example in detail. It’s really, really fascinating. 

     
  • feedwordpress 14:20:27 on 2018/10/17 Permalink
    Tags: Columns, , , , ,   

    Facebook Can’t Fix This. 

    The last 24 hours have not been kind to Facebook’s already bruised image. Above are four headlines, all of which clogged my inbox as I cleared email after a day full of meetings.

    Let’s review: Any number of Facebook’s core customers – advertisers – are feeling duped and cheated (and have felt this way for years). A respected reporter who was told by Facebook executives that the company would not use data collected by its new Portal product, is now accusing the company of misrepresenting the truth  (others would call that lying, but the word lost its meaning this year). The executive formerly in charge of Facebook’s security is…on an apology tour, convinced the place he worked for has damaged our society (and he’s got a lot ofcompany).

    In other news, Facebook has now taken responsibility for protecting the sanctity of our elections, by, among other things, banning “false information about voting requirements and fact-check[ing] fake reports of violence or long lines at polling stations.”

    Yep, a company that, in its core business, is currently charged with evasion, misstatements, and putting growth above civic duty is somehow still solely responsible for fixing the problems it’s created in our civil discourse and attendant democracy.

    Does this feel off to anyone else?

    We’ve had nearly two years of congressional hearings, nearly two years of testimony and apologies and “we must do better-isms.” While the company must be commended for actually making several things better (the ad transparency platform, for example), the fact that we continue to believe that the appropriate remedy for what ails us is to let the fox fix the holes in our chicken coop is downright….baffling.

    I guess this is what you get when the folks in power are happy with the results of our elections.

    But here’s my prediction, and it won’t take long for me to be proven right or wrong: Should the Democrats take control of the House, things are going to change. Quickly. Sure, with only the House, the Democrats can’t actually force any new regulation, nor can they command any cabinet level policy shifts.

    But as Trump well knows (and fears), a subpoena is a powerful thing.

    Now, if the Democrats don’t win the House, well, that’s another column.

    (cross posted from NewCo Shift)

     
  • feedwordpress 14:20:01 on 2018/08/27 Permalink
    Tags: , , , Columns, , , ,   

    The Accountable Capitalism Act: It’ll Never Happen, But At Least Now the Conversation Will 

    The past week or so has seen a surge in commentary on the role of corporations in society, a theme familiar to readers of this site. While it might be convenient to peg the trend to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s newly minted Accountable Capitalism Act (more on that in a second), I think it’s more likely that – finally – our collective will is turning to our most logical and obvious instrument of social change, namely, the instrument of business.

    We humans like to organize ourselves into social units. They range from the informal (pickup basketball games) to the elaborately structured (Senate hearings). Our ability to harness collective will is unsurpassed in the animal kingdom, it’s one of our key evolutionary adaptations, driving the success of our species across the globe.

    As I’ve argued elsewhere, one of our most sophisticated social structures is the corporation, which has co-evolved with our various systems of government over the past half millennium or so. The very first corporations were in fact formed (or chartered) by governments – the Dutch East India Company is the most common example of this. In the past century, however, corporations have largely sought to shake the yoke of government regulation – and nowhere have corporations won more freedoms than in the United States, where firms are now considered legal persons with an unrestrained right to “free speech” (IE, the ability to fund political positions).

    So this is where we are today: Large corporations have the legal right to exercise unlimited influence over our political sphere, and the commercial imperative to control (and profit from) nearly all our society’s data. That kind of power will necessarily produce a backlash, on that’s found an articulate, but highly unlikely, argument in Senator Warren’s proposed legislation. From the release announcing the Accountable Capitalism Act:

    For most of our country’s history, American corporations balanced their responsibilities to all of their stakeholders – employees, shareholders, communities – in corporate decisions. It worked: profits went up, productivity went up, wages went up, and America built a thriving middle class.

    But in the 1980s a new idea quickly took hold: American corporations should focus only on maximizing returns to their shareholders. That had a seismic impact on the American economy. In the early 1980s, America’s biggest companies dedicated less than half of their profits to shareholders and reinvested the rest in the company. But over the last decade, big American companies have dedicated 93% of earnings to shareholders – redirecting trillions of dollars that could have gone to workers or long-term investments. The result is that booming corporate profits and rising worker productivity have not led to rising wages.

    Additionally, because the wealthiest top 10% of American households own 84% of all American – held shares-while more than 50% of American households own no stock at all – the dedication to “maximizing shareholder value” means that the multi-trillion dollar American corporate system is focused explicitly on making the richest Americans even richer. 

    Here are a few of the act’s key proposals:

    • Companies with more than $1 billion in revenues must register with, and agree to be regulated by, a new Federal oversight body known as the Office of United States Corporations.  By registering, firms are obliged to “consider the interests of all corporate stakeholders – including employees, customers, shareholders, and the communities in which the company operates.” This enshrines what is often called a “multi-stakeholder philosophy,” the underpinning of B Corps like Patagonia and Kickstarter, into federal law.
    • A corporations’ workers would be empowered to elect at least forty percent of their firms’ board of directors.
    • Long term restrictions on the sale of stock by board directors and corporate officers – three years for stock buy backs, and five years for everything else. This is to insure that a large firms’ managers plan for the long term.
    • A prohibition on political spending of any kind without approval from 75 percent of both directors and shareholders.

    There’s more, but I think you’ve got the point – this is a sweeping and presently impossible piece of legislation that radically rethinks the governance of our most powerful corporations. It guts corporate political spending, upends business’s current compensation structure (often based on stock grants), radically reshapes board governance (giving a near majority control to workers), and creates a massive conservative bogeyman in the form of yet another Federal government oversight entity. In today’s political environment, Warren’s legislation is DOA.

    But in tomorrow’s? Quite possibly not. Senator Warren is widely considered a front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2020, and her initial opponent won’t be Trump – it’ll be Bernie Sanders, whose supporters likely will find plenty to love in Warren’s new plan.

    Regardless of whether the act has any chance of passing without a strong Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, Warren has smartly identified a central issue in our country’s political conversation, and declared it to be fundamental to the Democrats’ platform for 2020. It’s about time someone did.

    More recent reading on the role of capitalism in our society: 

    Louis Hyman: It’s Not Technology That’s Disrupting Our Jobs

    L.M. Sacasas: Technopoly and Anti-Humanism

    Tom Wheeler: Time to Fix It: Developing Rules for Internet Capitalism

    Neil Irwin: Are Superstar Firms and Amazon Effects Reshaping the Economy? 

     

     

     

     
  • feedwordpress 23:50:29 on 2018/01/03 Permalink
    Tags: , Columns, , , ,   

    My Predictions for 2018 

    The post My Predictions for 2018 appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

    (cross posted from NewCo Shift)

    So many predictions from so many smart people these days. When I started doing these posts fifteen years ago, prognostication wasn’t much in the air. But a host of way-smarter-than-me folks are doing it now, and I have to admit I read them all before I sat down to do my own. So in advance, thanks to Fred, to Azeem, to Scott, and Alexis, among many others.

    So let’s get into it. Regular readers know that while I think about these predictions in the back of my mind for months, I usually just sit down and write them at one sitting. That’s what happened a year ago, when I predicted that 2017 would see the tech industry lose its charmed status. It certainly did, and nearly everyone is predicting more of the same for 2018. So I won’t focus on the entire industry this year, as much as on specific companies and trends. Here we go….

    1. Crypto/blockchain dies as a major story this year. I know, this is a silly thing to say given all the hype right now. But the Silicon Valley hype cycle is a pretty predictable thing, and while new currencies will continue to rise, fall, and make and lose tons of money, the overall narrative thrives on the new, and there’s simply too much real-but-boring work to be done right now in the space. Does anyone remember 1994? Sure, it’s the year the Mozilla team decamped from Illinois to the Valley, but it’s not the year the Web broke out as a mainstream story. That came a few years later. 2018 is a year of hard work on the problems that have kept blockchain from becoming what most of us believe it can truly become. And that kind of work doesn’t keep the public engaged all year long. Besides, everyone will be focused on much larger issues like…
    2. Donald Trump blows up. 2018 is the year it all goes down, and when it does, it will happen quickly (in terms of its inevitability) and painfully slowly (in terms of it actually resolving). This of course is a terrible thing to predict for our country, but we got ourselves into this mess, and we’ll have to get ourselves out of it. It will be the defining story of the year.
    3. Facts make a comeback. This has something to do with Trump’s failure, of course, but I think 2018 is the year the Enlightenment makes a robust return to the national conversation. Liberals will finally figure out that it’s utterly stupid to blame the “other side” for our nation’s troubles. Several viral memes will break out throughout the year focused on a core narrative of truth and fact. The 2018 elections will prove that our public is not rotten or corrupt, but merely susceptible to the same fever dreams we’ve always been susceptible to, and the fever always breaks. A rising tide of technology-driven engagement will help drive all of this. Yes, this is utterly optimistic. And yes, I can’t help being that way.
    4. Tech stocks overall have a sideways year. That doesn’t meant they don’t rise like crazy early (already happening!), but that by year’s end, all the year in review stock pieces will note that tech didn’t drive the markets in the way they have over the past few years. This is because the Big Four have some troubles this coming year….
    5. Amazon becomes a target. Amazon is the most overscrutinized yet still misunderstood company in all of tech. For years it’s built a muscular and opaque platform, and in 2017 it benefitted from the fact that, so far anyway, Russians haven’t found a way to use e-commerce to disrupt western democracy. Yes, Trump seems to have a bug up his bum about the company, but his tweets last year seemed to only increase Amazon’s teflon reputation with the rest of society. In 2018, however, things will change for the worse. The company is smart enough to keep hiding its power — it hasn’t accumulated the cash of its GAFA rivals, nor does it play (as much) in the high profile worlds of media and politics. But by 2018, the company will find itself painted into something of a box. Last year I thought the fear of automation and job losses would dominate the political discussion, but Russia managed to eclipse those concerns. This is the year Amazon becomes the poster child for future shock. In particular, I expect the company’s “Flex” business to come under serious scrutiny. And what it’s doing with in house brands is the equivalent of Google giving preference to its own products in search results (that hasn’t worked out so well in Europe). Further tarnishing its image will be its lack of leadership on social issues — Jeff Bezos is no Tim Cook when it comes to empathy. By year’s end, Amazon’s reputation will be in jeopardy. Then again, I do think the company will be nimbler than most in responding to that threat.
    6. Google/Alphabet will have a terrible first half (reputation wise), but recover after that. Why a terrible first half? Well, I agree with Scott, there’s another shoe to drop in the whole Schmidt story, not to mention more EU fines and fake news fallout, and that will kick off a soul-searching first half for the search giant. The company will find itself flat-footed and in need of some traditional corporate revival tactics — ever since Page stepped back into the obscurity of Alphabet, the company has lacked a compelling overarching narrative. I’m not sure how the company recovers its mojo, but it could be by pushing deeper into a strategy of letting its children grow up outside the Alphabet conglomerate structure. Perhaps not a government driven breakup, per se, but a series of spin outs, led by Sundar Pichai (Google), Susan Wojcicki (YouTube), and perhaps a new spinout around Doubleclick/Adtech, possibly run by Neal Mohan. Alphabet will remain as a holding company with stakes in all these newly (or soon to be newly) public companies, as well as a place that incubates new ventures and figures out what the hell to do with Nest.
    7. Facebook. Ah, what to say about Facebook. Well, let’s just say the company muddles through a slog of a year, with a lot of rearguard work politically, even as it starts to dawn on the world that maybe, just maybe, every advertiser in the world doesn’t want to be handcuffed to the company’s toxic engagement model. Of course, with YouTube in particular, Google has this issue as well, so here’s my Facebook prediction, which is more of an ad industry prediction: The Duopoly falls out of favor. No, this doesn’t mean year-on-year declines in revenue, but it does mean a falloff in year-on-year growth, and by the end of 2018, a increasingly vocal contingent of influencers inside the advertising world will speak out against the companies (they’re already speaking to me privately about it). One or two of them will publicly cut their spending and move it to other places, like programmatic (which will have a sideways year more than likely) and places like….
    8. Pinterest breaks out. This one might prove my biggest whiff, or my biggest “nailed it,” hard to say. But for more, see my piece from earlier in the weekAdvertisers will find comfort in Pinterest’s relatively uncontroversial model, and its increasingly good results. The big question is whether Pinterest can both scale its inventory in a predictable and contextual way, and whether it can make its self service/API-based platform super simple to use. Oh, and of course continue to attract a growing user base. Early signs are that it’s doing all three.
    9. Autonomous vehicles do not become mainstream. I’ve said it before, I’m saying it again: This shit is complicated, and we’re not even close to ready. We’ll see a lot of cool pilots, and maybe even one (probably small) city will vote to let them run amuck. But I just don’t see it happening this year. However, I do think 2018 will be the year that electric vehicles are accepted as inevitable.
    10. Business leads. Business doesn’t change by fiat, it changes through the slow uptake of new social norms. And a crucial new norm in business poised to have a breakout year is the expectation that companies take their responsibilities to all stakeholders as seriously as they take their duty to shareholders“All stakeholders” means more than customers and employees, it means actually adding value to society beyond just their product or service. 2018 will be the year of “positive externalities” in business, and yes, NewCo will be there to take notes on those companies who manage to live up to this new normal. A good place to start, of course, is the Shift Forum in less than two months. I hope to see you there, and have a great 2018!

    The post My Predictions for 2018 appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

     
  • feedwordpress 11:38:23 on 2016/06/02 Permalink
    Tags: Columns,   

    My Latest Columns 

    The post My Latest Columns appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

    In meetings with several colleagues over the past few days, many did not know about the column I write each week – I’ve been remiss and not cross posting my writings from NewCo Shift here.

    It’s been interesting to move my main focus of writing from a personal blog to a publication in-the-making. I’ll have more thoughts about that this weekend here. But in the meantime, if you’re wondering what I’m thinking and writing about, well, most of that work is here. Here are my latest columns:

    Chasing The Grail: Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Illumina, and Google Ventures Are Betting This Company Will Find A Cure For Cancer

    The World’s Biggest Industry Just Got Served

    Why Uber and Apple Won’t Save The Economy

    Kickstarter’s Mission Is Non-Negotiable

    Does Your Company Know Why It Exists?

    Hey, Fortune 500: Time To Get Involved

    Android’s Founder Wants To Give The Internet A Body

    The Shot Clock

    The Tech Story Is Over

     

    The post My Latest Columns appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

     
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